Operation Battle of the Java Sea

The 'Battle of the Java Sea' was a battle fought between Japanese and Allied naval forces in the Java Sea (27 February 1942).

The Allied force suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Imperial Japanese navy on 27 February and in secondary actions over successive days. The Dutch commander of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command Combined Strike Force, Schout-bij-nacht Karel Doorman, was killed. The aftermath of the battle included several smaller actions around Java, including the smaller but also significant 'Battle of the Sunda Strait', and the Allied defeats in these engagement led to Japanese occupation of the entire Netherlands East Indies.

The Japanese invasion and conquest of the eastern part of the Netherlands East Indies progressed at a rapid pace in the first weeks of 1942 as the Japanese forces advanced from their main launching point in the Palau islands group and captured bases in Sarawak and the southern part of the Philippine islands group. They seized bases in eastern Borneo and in the northern part of Celebes while troop convoys, screened by destroyers and cruisers with air support, provided by swarms of fighters operating from captured bases, steamed to the south through the Makassar Strait and into the Molucca Sea. To oppose these invading forces was a small naval force, comprising Dutch, US, British and Australian warships, many of them of World War I vintage, initially under the command of a US officer, Admiral Thomas C. Hart.

On 23 January 1942, a force of four US destroyers attacked a Japanese invasion convoy in the Makassar Strait as it approached Balikpapan in south-eastern Borneo. On 13 February, the Allies fought unsuccessfully in the 'Battle of Palembang' to prevent the Japanese from capturing the major oil port in south-eastern Sumatra. On the night of 19/20 February, an Allied force attacked the Eastern Force off Bali in the 'Battle of the Badung Strait'. On the same date, the Japanese flew two air raids against Darwin, on the Australian mainland, one by carrierborne aircraft and the other by land-based aircraft. The damage inflicted on Darwin rendered it useless as a supply and naval base to support Allied operations in the Netherlands East Indies.

The Japanese amphibious forces gathered for the 'J' (ii) operation to take Java, and on 27 February the main Allied naval force, under Doorman’s command, steamed to the north-east from Soerabaja on this islands’s northern coast to intercept a convoy of the Eastern Force approaching from the Makassar Strait. The Eastern Strike Force of the Combined Strike Force, as it was known, comprised two heavy cruisers (British Exeter and US Houston), three light cruisers (Dutch De Ruyter [flag], Dutch Java and Australian Perth) and nine destroyers (British Electra, Encounter and Jupiter, Dutch Kortenaer and Witte de With, and US Alden, John D. Edwards, John D. Ford and Paul Jones).

The Japanese task force protecting the convoy of 41 transport vessels, was Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi’s Eastern Java Invasion Force, Escort Force comprising two heavy cruisers (Nachi and Haguro escorted by the destroyers Ikazuchi and Akebono), two light cruisers (Naka and Jintsu) and 18 destroyers (Yudachi, Samidare, Murasame, Harusame, Minegumo, Asagumo, Natsugumo, Minegumo and Yamakaze of Naka's 1st Escort Force, and Kuroshio, Oyashio, Hayashio, Hatsukaze, Yukikaze, Amatsukaze, Sazanami, Ushio and Tokitsukaze of Jintsu's 2nd Escort Force, these including the 4th Destroyer Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura. The Japanese heavy cruisers were considerably larger and more heavily armed than their Allied counterparts, each with 10 8-in (203.2-mm) guns, and markedly superior torpedoes: by comparison, Exeter was armed only with six 8-in (203.2-mm) main guns and only six of Houston's nine 8-in (203.2-mm) main guns remained operable after her after turret had been knocked out in an earlier air attack.

The Allied force engaged the Japanese in the Java Sea, and the battle continued intermittently from the middle of the afternoon to midnight as the Allies tried to reach and attack the troop transports of the Eastern Java Invasion Force but were repulsed by superior firepower. The Allies had local air superiority during the daylight hours, because Japanese air power could not reach the fleet in the bad weather. The weather also hindered communications, making co-operation between the many Allied parties involved (in reconnaissance, air cover and fleet headquarters) still worse than it already was. The Japanese also jammed the radio frequencies. Exeter was the only ship in the battle equipped with radar, at the time an emerging technology.

The battle consisted of a series of attempts over a seven-hour period by Doorman’s Combined Strike Force to reach and attack the invasion convoy, and each of these was rebuffed by the escort force, which inflicted heavy losses on the Allies.

The fleets sighted each other at about 16.00 on 27 February and closed to engagement range, opening fire at 16.16. Both sides exhibited poor gunnery and torpedo skills during this phase of the battle. Despite her recent refit (with the addition of modern Type 284 gunnery-control radar), Exeter's shells did not come close to the Japanese ships, while Houston managed to achieve only one straddle on one of the opposing cruisers. The single notable result of the initial gunnery exchange was the critical damage suffered by Exeter when she was hit in a boiler room by an 8-in (203.2-mm) shell, the British ship then limping away to Soerabaja escorted by Witte de With.

The Japanese launched two huge torpedo salvoes, totalling 92 Type 93 'Long Lance' 24-in (610-mm) torpedoes, but scored only one hit, on Kortenaer, which broke in two and sank rapidly.

Covering Exeter, Electra engaged in a duel with Jintsu and Asagumo, scoring several hits but suffering severe damage to her own superstructure. After a serious fire had started on Electra and her remaining turret ran out of ammunition, the order was given to abandon ship. On the Japanese side, only Asagumo was compelled to retire as a result of damage.

The Allied force broke off and turned away at about 18.00, covered by a smokescreen laid by the four destroyers of US Destroyer Division 58, whose ships also launched an attack with their 21-in (533-mm) torpedoes but at too long a range to be effective. Doorman’s force turned to the south toward Java’s northern coast, then to the west and finally to the north as night fell in an attempt to evade the Japanese escort group and fall on the convoy. It was at this point the ships of Destroyer Division 58, their torpedoes expended, departed on their own initiative to return to Soerabaja.

Shortly after this, at 21.25, Jupiter struck a mine, believed to have been discarded by a Dutch minelayer, in shallow water and sank, while about 20 minutes later, the Allied force passed the point at which Kortenaer had sunk, and Encounter was detached to rescue survivors.

Doorman’s command, now reduced to four cruisers, again encountered the Japanese escort group at 23.00. Both columns exchanged fire at long range in the darkness, until Java and De Ruyter were torpedoed in the same devastating salvo: Java exploded and sank within minutes, while De Ruyter was struck and disabled while evading and sank several hours later. Only 111 men were rescued from both ships. Among the dead was Doorman, who went down with De Ruyter.

Only the cruisers Perth and Houston remained, Short of fuel and ammunition, and following Doorman’s last order to ignore survivors and proceed to Batavia, the two ships retired, arriving at Tanjung Priok on 28 February.

Although the Allied force did not reach the invasion fleet, the battle did give the defenders of Java a one-day respite.

Perth and Houston were at Tanjung Priok on 28 February when they received orders to move through the Sunda Strait to Tjilatjap. Matériel of all types was running short in Java, and neither ship was able to rearm or refuel fully. Departing at 19.00 on 28 February for the Sunda Strait, by chance they encountered the main strength of the Japanese Western Java Invasion Force in Bantam Bay. The Allied ships were engaged by at least three cruisers and several destroyers, and in a ferocious night action which ended after 00.00 on 1 March, Perth and Houston were both sunk. A Japanese minesweeper and a troop transport were sunk by friendly fire, while three other transport vessels were damaged and had to be beached.

The Dutch destroyer Evertsen had been scheduled to depart Tanjung Priok with the cruisers, but was delayed, and followed about two hours later. Her crew sighted the gunfire of the main action, and her captain managed to evade the Japanese main force. However, Evertsen was then engaged by two Japanese destroyers in the the Sunda Strait, and on fire and in a sinking condition, grounded herself on a reef near Sebuku island. The surviving members of the destroyer’s crew abandoned ship just as her after magazine exploded.

The next episode was the '2nd Battle of the Java Sea'. After emergency repairs, the badly damaged Exeter departed Soerabaja for Ceylon. The British cruiser steamed out of the Dutch port at dusk on 28 February and limped toward the Sunda Strait, escorted by the destroyers Encounter and Pope. However, all three ships were intercepted by the Japanese heavy cruisers Nachi, Haguro, Myoko and Ashigara and their attendant destroyers during the morning of 1 March. Exeter and Encounter were both sunk at about 12.00, while Pope escaped only to be sunk several hours later by air attack.

The four destroyers of the US Destroyer Division 58 (John D. Edwards, John D. Ford, Alden and Paul Jones) were also at Soerabaja, but then departed for Australia via the harbour’s shallow eastern entrance at the fall of night on 28 February. After a brief encounter with Japanese destroyers in the Bali Strait, which they were able to evade, the destroyers reached Fremantle safely on 4 March.

Another Dutch destroyer, Witte de With, and three US ships (destroyers Pillsbury and Edsall, and gunboat Asheville) were either scuttled or sunk as they attempted to escape to Australia.

The main ABDA naval force had been almost totally destroyed: 10 ships and approximately 2,173 sailors had been lost. The 'Battle of the Java Sea' had ended significant Allied naval operations in South-East Asia during 1942, and Japanese land forces invaded Java on 28 February. The Dutch surface fleet was practically eradicated from Asian waters and the Netherlands would never reclaim full control of its colony. The Japanese now controlled Java, which was one of the most important food-producing regions in the area, and by conquering the Netherlands East Indies also controlled the fourth-largest oil producing area in the world in 1940.

The USAAF and Royal Air Force retreated to Australia. Dutch troops, aided by British remnants, fought fiercely for a week. In the campaign the Japanese executed many Allied prisoners of war and sympathising Indonesians. Eventually, the Japanese won this decisive battle of attrition and ABDA forces surrendered on 9 March.